A Novel, a Poetry Collection, and Poets Talk Poetics

I’m off to a slow start with my “what I’m reading now” blog.  The good news is I’m reading several books at once.  The bad news is I have no radio station deadline to force me to write reviews.  Plus, I’m also writing poetry, so there’s that fine distraction. 

But, I didn’t want February to slip by without mentioning those books I have read all the way through either to further my poetry studies or just to keep me company during the sometimes sleepless nights of these strange times. 

In February, I finished reading two books that address both self-image and family connection among many other important themes.  Bonnie Proudfoot creates achingly human characters in her debut novel, Goshen Road.  Her Price Sisters, their parents, and the men they choose as partners struggle against the elements, poverty, and each other to make a life in rural West Virginia that spans a couple of decades in the narrative.  What I admire the most about this novel is the writer’s ability to immerse her readers in the sensory elements of that struggle.  From the first harrowing plot event that changes a young man’s options forever to the last revelations from Billie Price about the holy sounds of place and connection, Goshen Road is a masterpiece of characterization and image.  The skill with which Proudfoot shuffles the viewpoint through all the main characters reminds me of Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible. I could have easily read the entire 224 pages in one night, but I wanted to think and feel on what I’d read for at least two sittings.  Good fiction goes down like a really good pale ale—I want to enjoy those hints of citrus. 

Goshen Road is published by Ohio University Press’ Swallow Books imprint.  So, it is exactly the kind of book—like those of Misty Skaggs, Robert Gipe, or Michael Henson—that would’ve wound up on my Around Cincinnati producer’s desk and therefore on my schedule to review. Academic presses and most things Appalachian or Kentucky were my beat.  I miss that routine and all the books I would’ve written about by now.  However, I am lucky that my long poetry connection to Cincinnati’s first Poet Laureate, Pauletta Hansel, keeps introducing me to talented writers like Bonnie Proudfoot.  Her book found its way to me through that rich connection for which I am ever grateful. 

I was assigned—for a year-long poetry challenge-- to read Kate Baer’s What Kind of Woman, also a debut, but this time a poetry collection published by Harper Perennial.  As with many poetry collections, it took me two read-throughs to get the overall feel of the themes and to analyze what my facilitator wanted our group to notice about the poems—metaphors and images.  Baer organizes her collection into what I would consider three phases or roles for women.  At each phase, she questions her perceptions of self against what she thinks society is asking of her.  She also uses many inventive poetry techniques like “black-out,” or erasure-type poems that create a concrete shape on the page. She also uses prose poems to good effect.  I’ve never been able to do that myself.  Mine just sound like prose. 

In the first section, the poet seems to examine her self-image as defined through other young women friends.  Part II examines what it’s like to be a wife and partner, defined by her experience and society’s definitions.  And finally, Part III looks at motherhood, parenthood and self-acceptance in less than perfect terms.  When I discussed this book with my assigned male poetry partner, he expressed that he felt alienated by the subject matter and the various “modern” poetry forms.  I felt mostly an understanding of the dissonance between what society expects of women and what we sometimes unrealistically expect from ourselves.  I came away with an overall sense of grief and resilience after reading Baer’s poems.  My guess is, she’d be pleased by that effect. 

And last—but not least—I am reading an anthology of world poetry edited by translator, Czeslaw Milosz with my interim poetry group which we participants have dubbed “Poets Muddle Through.”  We are mostly a group of Pauletta Hansel’s Draft to Craft devotees who like to keep talking poetics between Pauletta’s sessions.  Although we often read articles on the subject, we decided it might be a good idea to actually read a curated anthology of poems.  Poet Laureate Emeritus, Manuel Iris suggested Milosz’s anthology to us and sometimes departs from his busy teaching schedule to pop in and opine. (My husband is currently amused at the word, “opine,” so I just decided to sprinkle it around a little.)  We’ve had some great discussions over the poems in this collection and even over Milosz’s introductory comments. 

And of course, I have the usual stack of fine new publications waiting.  They won’t be new by the time I get to them all, but I do enjoy knowing that some good words are always on deck. 

I hope your reading brings you much light.

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